A federal appellate court has ruled that prison inmates who practice witchcraft can sue the state that incarcerates them for discrimination because it doesn’t hire a chaplain for them but does for more mainstream religions.
It’s one of those only in California stories, but it’s going through the federal court system so it deserves attention. Two incarcerated women who practice Wicca, a goddess-worshiping form of witchcraft, sued the state for refusing to hire a Wiccan chaplain. In their complaint the women claim that Wicca has more adherents in their northern California state prison than two of the five religions—including Islam and Judaism—that have state-paid chaplains.
Wiccan inmates have access to a volunteer chaplain, the prisoners claim, but the volunteer is only available every two or three months and the jailed Wiccans need frequent contact with ordained clergy. That’s because clergy is essential to perform “initiations, blessings and ceremonies” in a faith that relies on “an oral tradition of songs and stories.”
A federal court in Fresno dismissed the inmates’ lawsuit in 2011 after finding no violations in their rights. However, this week the notoriously liberal Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought it back to life by overturning the decision. The San Francisco-based appellate court ordered the original judge to reconsider the case and determine whether state prisons unconstitutionally prefer majority religions over Wicca and other minority faiths.
If the jailed convicts’ allegations are true, the appellate court wrote in its decision, “the prison administration failed to employ any neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warranted a reallocation of resources used in accommodating inmates’ religious exercise needs.” While the state isn’t required to “provide inmates with the chaplain of their choice,” it must use neutral standards when deciding how to spend money on prisoners’ religious needs, the ruling says.
For many years California prisons have hired chaplains for Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims to conduct religious services for inmates. In the mid 1980s American Indian prisoners sued the state because it didn’t provide spiritual advisers so those are available as well. The group that represents California’s 30,000-plus correctional officers posts this on its website: “California taxpayers, who already pay for prison chaplains covering Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Native American religions, might have to add witches to the employee list.”